Bike Trip 1999 - The Hills From Mercer PA to Baltimore


Jim and Tom's 4th bike tour

Prologue

Before leaving on this trip several mentioned to me that this trip was kind of crazy. There would be serious hills and hot weather. I told them I'd let them know if I was crazy when I returned. The following is all about our ride through the hills of PA.

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Monday, July 5, 59 miles

I remembered everything on this trip except for two minor pieces of clothing - bike shorts and a bike shirt. Some biker I am. Also, bike shops were closed on July 5 due to the 4th of July holiday falling on a Sunday. Fortunately Jim had a pair of shorts I could borrow. I decided to ride with my blue T shirt. I hate riding with a T shirt cause they eventually end up feeling like they weigh 10 pounds.

Two middle aged delinquents

We ate a big breakfast and left Jim's place at 10:30am. There's a nice tail wind early on and we're riding 25 mph. I say, "we should be there in no time at this rate." After 7.5 hours of riding we finally arrive in Kittanning.

We ride around the edge of Slippery Rock and climb our first hill. All too soon hill climbing becomes a way of life on this ride.

Where's the Creek?

We stop at Slippery Rock Creek near Bovard for our first rest. It's getting very hot and the hills are getting bigger and steeper.

The truth is that I knew this would happen. I knew PA well enough to know there were lots of hills. I even envisioned the hills before the trip and didn't miss by too much.

This part of PA is a geologic region known as the "dissected plateau." A long time ago this region was flat as a billiard table (geologically speaking) as it used to be part of a sea bed. The creeks and rivers carved the hills over the years. The hill tops are, therefore, all the same height. The area we are now riding into was never glaciated so the hills are higher than at our starting point.

Climbing the hill to Annandale makes us might thirsty and we stop for some Gatorade. From now on there seem to be nothing but hills. We ride up a hill, hope for a nice runout going down the hill, cross a creek, and then immediately ride up another hill.

Branchton Mine

We stop to see Branchton Mine, a former limestone mine now used for document storage.

Stand back or I'll open fire

Next we stop in beautiful Petrolia for some more Gatorade and to admire the nice oil refineries.

At this point, on average, there is a hill every mile. A hill goes up anywhere from a quarter to a half mile and then goes down. The town of Chicora is built on a hill. As we ride through town we miss a turn and end up at the bottom of the hill, and need to ride back up to find our turn. We get lost for the first (but not the last) time as we leave Chicora and head to Worthington. Somehow we end up in Nichola (a community of about 4 houses) wondering what went wrong. Unfortunately our map does not show every road, and not all roads are marked. I guess our intuitive GPS systems weren't quite right and those hills seem to all look the same around there. All-in-all our intuitive GPS systems worked the vast majority of the time. If you don't get lost a couple of times, then you picked too easy of a route. That's my take on a good bike tour. My experience has been that the backroads are the most enjoyable. This route had lots of backroads and lots of hills. At this point we are clearly in the middle of nowhere.

I start having transmission trouble and can't get my bike to shift into the smallest front chainring, knowm as the granny gear. I climb a couple of hills in the middle chainring and start to overheat. Time for a rest. After that I have to manually place my chain into the granny gear. I now KNOW my granny gear intimately. Thank God for granny gears.

We head south to catch highway 422 and then head west toward Worthington. We arrive in Worthington and drink more Gatorade. I drank a quart in a matter of minutes.

Worthington

It's time for some ice cream.

Fortunately the road to Kittanning is now flatter and I don't need that granny gear. We arrived in Kittanning at 6pm to learn the high temperature that day was 102. The person who checked us in at the hotel asks if we're aware that the TV is saying that we shouldn't be doing such a ride in weather like this. We tell her it's OK cause we're crazy. We eat at Kenny B's and we eat a lot. I spend the evening working on my transmission and get it working good enough.

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Tuesday, July 6, 69 miles, 30 hills

After a thoroughly pathetic continental breakfast (except for the OJ) at the motel we start riding about 7:40am.

Kittanning

It's already hot. We ride along the Allegheny River to a park in Kittanning. We get a little lost pretty quick this morning and ride up a half mile hill only to discover it's heading the wrong way. We ride back down and take the other way at a fork in the road. We ride along remote backroads all morning.

Shay

It's very scenic and the panoramic views are great.

We decide to count hills. What is a hill? We decide a hill is anything where we have to drop down to the granny gear to efficiently get to the top. Too many hills have more than a 10% grade. Hill 14 was dirt (cause we took a wrong turn). It definitely pays to conserve energy during the day.

Johnny Appleseed

One never knows what you might run into.

A couple of dogs even chased us that morning (half heartedly) as we slowly made our way to the town of Indiana for lunch.

Hill

Most of the hills today have nice runouts at the bottom and we can get some good speed as we start to climb the next hill.

We stopped for a rest at Crooked Creek on an old bridge to admire the view of the steep hills on the ridge we just rode down. As we leave, there's an old guy there in the middle of nowhere and he asks us if we have any cigarettes. We tell him "no" and, of course, climb the next hill.

In Indiana I decided to buy a new shirt. My T shirt feels like it weighs 10 pounds and I'm ready to wear something that doesn't hold the moisture. The bike shop only has one shirt and the shirt is advertising everything. Oh well, it's a lot better than the T shirt. The guy at the bike shop warns us that the hills coming up are big.

We eat at the DQ (love those DQs) and drink about a gallon of ice water each. Initially there's a nice downhill out of Indiana and I hit 47.7 mph on my bike. Soon we hit the biggest climb of the trip (so far) and end up climbing just over 2 miles.

There are couple of really nice downhills on the way to Johnstown and the last 5 miles are pretty flat as the road follows a river into town. Again we are quite exhausted and hungry, and we drank gallons of fluids. It's only dew points in the 70s and temperatures in the mid 90s today.

We arrive in Johnstown at 5pm - too late to see the Johnstown flood museum.

Before Flood

On May 31, 1889, an inadequate dam (maintained by wealthy Pittsburgh industrialists to create a fishing lake) burst and Johnstown was hit with a wall of water that killed 2209 people.

After Flood

Just walking around town you can find enough pictures and descriptions of the floods (1 was the dam burst and 2 were due to excessive snow). We ate dinner at Johnnies in downtown Johnstown. Our waitress tells us to go up the inclined plane (a funicular) as we can then see how Johnstown is a city at the bottom of a bowl. After dinner we took the inclined plane up to the top of hill overlooking the city. It starts to rain while we are up there. This inclined plane, with a 72% grade, is the steepest in the world, and was built in 1891 so people could build their homes on top of a hill and still have an easy way to commute into town. They'll even haul your car up and down for just $5.

Johnstown Panoramic

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Wednesday, July 7, 59 miles, 20 hills

We start with a great breakfast at Johnnies and finally start riding about 8:40am. Everyone at the restaurant wishes us well.

Johnstown Climb

What a nice shirt!

The climb out of town is another 2 mile hill and very steep. I hit 47.5 mph on the downhill side. It's not as hot nor as humid today (a welcome relief). After about 15 miles we stop for lemonade at Rummel. A guy inside the restaurant told us he was afraid to ride on these roads cause too many people try to run him off the road. That sure makes you feel good. Everyone we meet is quite friendly and helpful on our trip. They all wish us well and say, "hot enough for ya?" We start riding on highway 56 which is a busier road than the remote county roads we've mostly been riding the previous two days.

Babcock Ridge

We reach the Allegheny Front at Babcock Ridge. This is the highest point of our trip at 2700 feet. This is also the end of the dissected plateau.

The road down the ridge is 4 miles long at 8.5% grade. Half way down there's a 20 mph curve. I hit 48.2 mph. At the bottom of the hill we'd gone 24 miles that day and 1/6th of that distance was this hill.

I'll throw this rock at you

We are entering a geologic region called "ridge and valley" where there are very high ridges but also flatter valleys in between the ridges. These ridges were formed in more traditional ways back when the continent of Africa slammed into North America and popped up some mountains. We are now riding with a breeze at our backs and averaging 17 mph. This is quite a change from the dissected plateau area where we were lucky to average 10 mph.

We rode 20 hills today. We stopped along the Juniata River for a rest and then rode into Bedford and had lunch at the Landmark Restaurant. The waitress wished us well and asked if it was hot enough for us.

After lunch we continued on our way to Breezewood, and saw a 1787 tavern in Everett. The road is busy between Everett and Breezewood. The last 2 to 3 miles was construction and quite narrow for riding on a 55 mph highway. This was white knuckle riding.

We arrived in Breezewood at 3:45pm. This was our easiest day and much appreciated after two extreme "widow maker" hill climbing days.

That evening we played pinball and pool. I had a life defining moment when I got a 12 million point ball. In life, sometimes all you need is a single ball worth 12 million. We also played some pool. Walking around Breezewood you realize this a town for commuters as it lies between two major interstates. There are trucks everywhere. It's a real pit - I love it.

Way Out of Breezewood

From the restaurant parking lot we can see highway 30 climbing over a nearby ridge, our way out of town.

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Thursday, July 8, 80 miles, 24 hills

Unfortunately my bike computer decided to reset itself around the 34 mile mark. I was tracking the entire trip and lost valuable data like the average mph, total hours biking time, etc.

We leave Breezewood at 7:40am and decide to ride the 19 miles to McConnellsburg for breakfast. The temp is in the 60s. From the moment we start riding we are climbing a hill. It's early and there's not much traffic yet on highway 30.

Looking back at Breezewood

The hill out of Breezewood is 2 miles long. There is no rest on our way to McConnellsburg - it's all hills. One hill is called Sidling Hill.

One Fun Hill

It's 3 miles down hill with an 8% grade. I hit 47 mph and there was a great runout at the bottom. I was traveling fast enough that I had to use an entire car lane to navigate the hill safely. Fortunately no cars came the entire time I was traversing the hill.

In McConnellsburg we search for breakfast.

Offensive sign

This is a curious sign at one local establishment.

Forgot the flash

We decide to find another place and discover Johnnies. This Johnny thing keeps repeating itself with Johnny Appleseed, Johnnies Restaurant, and now Johnnies Diner. The guy behind the register says to me "hot enough for ya?" as we walk in. The waitress refers to us a "you-ins" (typically spelled 'yinz' in western PA) when she takes our order. They have a breakfast item called "puddin" that seems to be mashed potatoes and shredded pork. I just love this place.

We eat a big breakfast and it's great. They fill our water bottles with ice water and we leave. Everyone on this trip was nice about giving us ice water. As we finish breakfast we see a truck pull into the McDonalds restaurant across the street. On the side of the truck it says Johnnies Restaurant Supplies - Altoona.

It's very sunny as we make the 3 mile climb with 8% grade out of McConnellsburg.

Tuscarora Mountain Top

This is the Tuscarora Mountain which is 3 miles up and 3 miles down with a good runout at the bottom. The long ride up these hills gives you plenty of time to think about the nice ride down (always too short) where speeds in excess of 45 mph are often reached. On one hill I hit 49.7 mph - the fastest speed I've ever achieved on a bike.

Valley with Tuscarora Mountain Background

Next we are riding in a valley that is farming country with the ridge behind us. We can ride at a faster average speed here. Unfortunately this is about where my computer reset.

I say. ``the bridge ain't out ahead''

We are again on backroads and appreciate the lack of traffic. It's hot and 1 quart Gatorade bottles are easily consumed. We stopped for a rest at Mont Alto before climbing hills 17 and 18. These hills climb over a couple of high ridges, one right after the other. This road leads to South Mountain.

Funky Hiker

We cross the Appalachian Trail along here. The runouts on these hills are disappointing because the road is in poorer shape. Brake riding is in order.

The last ten miles into Gettysburg was a breeze. The wind was at our backs and this is a valley. We had a good meal in the downstairs Tavern of the Dobbins restaurant built in 1776. We walked around the town of Gettysburg after dinner.

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Friday, July 9, 73 miles, 32 hills

First thing in the morning we rode around Gettysburg National Park, thereby avoiding a lot of traffic. It's a great park for riding. There are amazing extensive green tunnels to ride through, and nicely paved roads. A green tunnel is where the tree tops cover the road and it feels like you are riding in a tunnel.

History Up Close

The 51,000 deaths at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1-3, 1863, is the highest death toll of any single battle in U.S. history, and it makes me pretty doggone happy that I missed that one. The U.S. Civil War is the most studied war within the U.S. Most historians know that the prevailing belief of the time was two, maybe three, battles and the war will be over. Most don't know that General Robert E Lee had very small feet, wearing only a size 4.5 shoe.

They are talking about tearing down all the beautiful green tunnels and restoring Gettysburg to the exact state it had in 1863. I'm glad I got to ride those green tunnels as they are some of the best I've ever experienced.

Perhaps cutting down all those green tunnels will mean we will never forget what this civil war was all about. I don't think I'll ever forget those green tunnels.

Being History

The best part about history is that it's so easy to change.

After our tour of Gettysburg National Park, we eat a big breakfast at the Avenue Restaurant, and leave PA for the Maryland countryside.

Leaving PA

Today is a very hilly day. The hills are not these widow makers we've climbed previously, but they are both wearing and continuous.

Arriving Maryland

Maryland is hillier than I expected. Drank 4 bottles of water and 2 Gatorades on this humid day with temperatures in the mid-90s.

We got turned around at one point in a winding suburban area trying to find a back way into Westminster. Lost one final time. The route we took from Westminster to Baltimore did not have a single ice cream or Gatorade place. For miles and miles we kept promising each other some ice cream at the first opportunity.

Ice Cream

That didn't happen until our final destination point in Pikesville, a northwest suburb of Baltimore. It feels great to be in Maryland. After a great dinner that evening at Bertha's Mussels in the Fells Point area not too far from the Baltimore harbor area, we decide we're not going to ride for a couple of days.

340 Total Miles
49.7 Fastest Speed
106 + day1 Hills
102 highest temperature

Epilogue

After the ride many want to hear all about it. After they hear about the hills and the heat (having heard news anchors tell them about the dangerous high temperatures hitting the east coast) they often say it sounds crazy. The truth is that I have nothing but fond memories of those hills, and the hills were harder obstacles to overcome than the heat. I'd do it again without hesitation. I guess I must be crazy.

Click here to read A note from a colleague.